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Into the great wide open

The NCAA Tournament's No. 1 seeds are big-name programs, but none seems invincible.

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001


ATLANTA -- It's a familiar, even expected group, cast as the favorites to reach this year's Final Four.

But top seeds Stanford (West Region), Duke (East), Illinois (Midwest) and defending national champion Michigan State (South) all must come with an asterisk.

That makes the 65-team NCAA Tournament, set to begin with a new opening-round game Tuesday, as wide open as it has been in recent memory.

"I think there's no doubt that all these top heavyweight teams are beatable," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said.

The Cardinal, the Pac-10 champion and a No. 1 seed for the second straight time, lost Thursday at home to visiting Arizona. Illinois lost in the Big Ten tournament semifinals to Indiana, and coach Bill Self told ESPN he was "very surprised" to be a No. 1.

Meanwhile, Michigan State, a No. 1 seed for the third straight season, lost to Penn State in the Big Ten quarterfinals. Then there's Duke, the ACC regular season co-champion and winner of three straight conference tournaments, a top seed for the fourth straight time.

The Blue Devils will be without center Carlos Boozer for at least a week as he recovers from a broken bone in his right foot. Yes, Duke won four straight without him, including twice against North Carolina and Maryland, but guard Jason Williams twisted his left ankle during the second half Sunday and couldn't return.

He said he will be fine for the NCAA, but he even loses a day by ending up in Greensboro, N.C.

"You don't have to travel much, that's one good thing and hopefully, we'll get a lot of ACC-Duke supporters there," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "The more troubling thing is it's a Thursday-Saturday, so we're going to have to have Jason back quicker. The one good thing is that we're on spring break this week, so we do have a chance to get him in there even more getting therapy."

"If he can't go? Whew. It would be huge," said Brad Daugherty, the former North Carolina star and ESPN analyst. "They do have the luxury of having (Chris) Duhon, and he's excellent, but he (Williams) is the best guard in America."

All that leaves the door open for lower-seeded teams, including Florida -- last year's runner-up -- and Maryland, the No. 3 seeds in the South and West, respectively, as well as Indiana, No. 4 in the West.

"I don't think there's anybody lining up to play Indiana or Maryland," NCAA Division I men's basketball committee chairman Mike Tranghese said after Sunday's selections.

All of that made seeding, even at the very top, more difficult than in recent memory.

Perhaps that was no more evident than in the South, where a few days ago most pundits pencilled in Illinois, Michigan State, Duke, North Carolina and Florida as No. 1 possibilities.

Tranghese said it came down to the Spartans and the Tar Heels for the final No. 1, but the ACC co-champions had struggled down the stretch (4-4), including an embarrassing loss at Clemson. None of the top four had lost to a team that didn't make the NCAA field. (The 26-point loss to Duke on Sunday wasn't a factor, Tranghese said.)

"If we go into the tournament with a killer instinct, as you've seen throughout the year, anybody has as good a chance as anybody else," UNC junior forward Jason Capel said. "We still feel very much in the hunt."

As for filling out the field and bracket, Tranghese said his committee spent the most time discussing the fate of Georgia, which at 16-14 matched Villanova in 1991 for worst record for an at-large selection.

But the Bulldogs can thank the nation's toughest non-conference schedule, which included Stanford, California, Fresno State, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Indiana State and Georgia State -- all tournament teams.

"It has to be a factor," Tranghese said. "We felt if we said no to Georgia, even though they were 16-14, it would be pretty hypocritical for us to be standing here talking about the strength of a non-conference schedule."

The final few teams to get into the expanded field, at 65 with the Mountain West and the Western Athletic Conference receiving automatic bids and forcing an opening-round game Tuesday, likely included Georgetown, Providence and Xavier.

Some of the last teams to have their bubbles burst were Alabama, Richmond, Mississippi State, Southern Miss, Villanova and 1999 champion Connecticut, out for just the second time in the past 11 years.

The field is dominated like never before by the Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Big 12, Pac-10 and Big East. Those conferences received 29 of the 34 at-large spots.

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